I used to visit a lot of churches in my line of work. Really, I went to church more than anyone should probably ever go in their lifetime. And yet I find that I miss it these days. It’s been almost exactly two years since our family lost our own home church community and more than a year since most of our churches closed to in-person gatherings. It’s been a long, long time since I was able to go to church, let alone to sing in community with others and receive the Eucharist together. I miss it. Maybe because it’s still the Easter season and I’m ready for some resurrection, some joy, some bread and wine with people who love Jesus.
This yearning and longing for Eucharist has kind of surprised me for a few reasons, not the least of which is that my current relationship status with a lot of organized religion is best described as “It’s Complicated” but also because I’m not really from a tradition that emphasized things like that. I came of age and flourished in a faith tradition that minimized communion. It was one of the last traditional Christian things we held onto - we didn’t have consecrated spaces, we didn’t do the whole priest thing, we didn’t sing hymns, we didn’t do liturgy or lectionary or the Church calendar or robes. We were more likely to sit in folding chairs in a gym than pews in a cathedral; singing happy-clappy choruses off of a projector on a gym wall, not harmonized hymns out of a hymnal.
But we still “took communion” once a month. Usually with thimble-sized glasses of juice and small round wafers which were carefully balanced in special vessels for the occasion, delicately passed across those sparsely filled rows of folding chairs. At our former church, we used to just set up four or five big tables with the crackers and juice and let people have at it as help-yourself-as-you-like after prayer once a month. It has felt like my faith tradition - the third-wave charismatic sort - is often perceived as having an allergic response to sacramentalism. That perception isn’t entirely wrong - ask my friends how I react to the idea of ordination and you’ll see my anti-establishment streak remains, let’s say, just a bit STRONG.
There wasn’t a sense of mystery or solemnity to Communion for most of my life. There wasn’t a sense of feast to it. There wasn’t a sense of invitation or memory or sacrament. It was crackers and it was juice and a short Bible reading, great.
Our family kitchen table is a long rectangle. My son Joe - who has deeply held egalitarian ideals and despairs of my nostalgic love for the monarchy - recently lodged a complaint about the shape of the table. He felt it reinforced hierarchies of importance in our family to have one of us sitting at the “head of the table” when we all value one another as equals. He felt a round table would be more in keeping with our family values. “With our values, yes,” I said, “but not with our budget right now.” Even though that made me laugh, it reminded me of something from a church I visited a while ago.
I was preaching in the midwest. I had visited this particular community a few times and felt quite at home there, I counted many of the folks as friends. One thing always struck me about their church: rather than rows of chairs facing a stage, they set up their chairs in a circle around a giant table, filled with bread and wine, lit by candles, decorated with natural elements from the season. The song leader was to the side of it, when I preached it was to the other side. The Table was the focal point, the Eucharist was more central to their gathering than my sermon or the songs we would sing together; their formation as a community was as a circle, not a stage.
On that particular evening, we had filled the round chapel with our songs and with our prayers. We sang like a choir would sing: loud and big, right to the rafters together, as if we meant every word in that moment. I know I did. I still do, to be honest, most days.
The candles flickered and then I stood up in the middle of the circle to proclaim the power of the resurrection in my own life, how resurrection crept in slowly like the spring, and how every place of deadness and barrenness in my life was renewed, not in spite of a faith shift but because of it. Deconstruction gave room for flowers to grow and wild vines to take root in my life.
After I took my seat, the church stood up together. At each of the four corners of the Table, two people stepped forward to serve as ministers of the Eucharist. One held the bread, one held the wine. The church quietly filed up to the four corners and as each person approached a corner of the table, they cupped their hands together to receive the bread without grasping for it. I know, the metaphor of that, right? As they stood before the people holding the bread and wine, I could hear the ministers say, “This is the body of Christ broken for you, this is the blood of Christ poured out for you.” And they made sure to speak each person’s name.
This is the body of Christ broken for you, this is the blood of Christ poured out for you, Kristen. This is the body of Christ broken for you, this is the blood of Christ poured out for you, Jeff. This is the body of Christ broken for you, this is the blood of Christ poured out for you, Matthew. Over and over, until everyone had bread and everyone had wine and everyone heard their name aloud.
This was no paper thin wafer but a rich hunk of bread; this was no minuscule thimble for grape juice but one cup from which we all drew together, offered to us by the people of the church together, freely handing out the supper of the Lamb.
Here is the Table, open, come as you are.
Now that I remember this, I think this moment might be part of why Rachel and I always wanted to make sure that Communion was served at every Evolving Faith gathering. The Eucharist meant everything to her; it has taken me a while to see that it preaches the Gospel to me, too, now. It turns out the sacraments mean more when you’ve grieved a bit. Maybe.
We live in the Kin-dom of God or what theologians call "Now and Not Yet"of God’s goodness at this moment in time and space. It’s just that sometimes it feels like there are so many, too many, things that are still "not yet." We're not yet at farming over fighting, we're not yet at swords into ploughshares, we're not yet at no more sorrow, no more pain, no more injustice. We're not yet at the lion and the lamb laying down together, we're not yet seeing children curled up with an asp, we're not yet seeing all of our deserts bloom and our sicknesses healed and our brokenness made whole.
But sometimes I can forget that there is still power for now, too. Wonder-working power even, power here in these imperfect gatherings with imperfect people with imperfect theology who dare to believe that God's heart is for us, God's dream for us is wholeness and shalom and redemption. Maybe the power of God is most made manifest in our “Not Yet” moments simply because we’re not alone, not anymore, God has come to us then and now and always. And even then, we are together.
We may not see the full-scale redemption of God's created world, the world God called good. Perhaps Eastertide was never going to be a military pageant, but a spring morning of unfurling hopes and green new days and the perfume of possibility and hope. I see the power creeping up and under the death and the despair and the hopelessness, the injustice and the brokenness, weaving healing and wholeness and life into the darkest and emptiest and most ash-filled corners of our souls.
I miss Eucharist a lot right now. Even though I don’t know how I feel about “going to church” right this blessed minute, I miss bread and wine and community and songs.
I wonder if we’re supposed to be feasting more at the Table when this is all over. Less crackers-and-quick-sip-of-juice and more loaves of homemade bread and generous flasks of wine (or gluten-free bread and juice after all to include more folks, too). More people sitting around the table, reclining into each other, laughing and whispering good secrets. More apples and rosemary, more toasts and tears, more bowls of grapes and chatter, more mothers with babies at their breast, more jars of honey and mugs of tea, more quilts on the grass, more of a family reunion than a ritual.
In her lovely book Bread and Wine: A Love Letter to Life Around The Table, Shauna Niequist writes, "To those of us who believe that all of life is sacred, every crumb of bread and sip of wine is a Eucharist, a remembrance, a call to awareness of holiness right where we are. I want all of the holiness of the Eucharist to spill out beyond church walls, out of the hands of priests and into the regular streets and sidewalks, into the hands of regular, grubby people like you and me, onto our tables, in our kitchens and dining rooms and backyards."
It strikes me now that this act of our consumption is actually counter to our culture. We live in a culture of consuming; we consume more food than we need, more land than we need, more clothes than we need. We consume each other’s cultures as if they are up for grabs. We consume without thought, without care, without consideration. We’re open mouths, locusts in the land. Needy, yearning.
So even when our physical needs are met, our souls remain famished.
And so receiving the Eucharist is also an acknowledgement that we can’t be filled by anything else. We consume and it’s admitting we come to the table, hungry and thirsty, no matter how worldly and wealthy. It’s holding our hands out and saying, “Only you, Jesus, only you can satisfy.”
Or as my friend Rozella said to me once, “The people are hungry, the people are thirsty, preach the damn Gospel.”
On that evening and in that church, I went forward to receive communion. I have done this thousands of times now, maybe more. I have received communion in stone churches in Vancouver, in Haiti’s tent city churches, in Calgary living rooms, in Texas megachurches, and Regina leisure centres. I have crossed myself after partaking and I have also carried on in my day as if it matters nothing. I can say the words along with the preachers and barely internalize them.
But as I went forward on that day after preaching, the community was singing. The woman who was offering bread and wine in my corner of the church quietly tucked the bread into my open palm and said to me, “This is the Body of Christ, given to you, Sarah.” I closed my fingers around the hunk of bread and raised it towards the cup that was being held by her partner, who said, “This is the blood of Christ, poured out for you, Sarah.” I dipped the bread into the wine and popped it into my mouth.
The bread, weighted with wine, sat on my tongue. I pressed it against the roof of my mouth and again my knees buckled involuntarily. I quickly walked over to my chair in the front row and collapsed into it. I chewed and swallowed, suddenly aware of every taste, every reality of it, tears running down my face. I felt the manifest presence of God like a mantle, my hands were trembling.
I was overcome by the presence of Jesus as if a revival was happening in the front row. It felt like the line of time collapsed a bit, as if all that was and is and will be was present there. In that moment of tasting, something in my soul illuminated that I haven’t been able to articulate even at this point in my letter to you.
So, after all this is over, some part of me would like to set up a banquet table in the woods, or maybe in my front yard, maybe on a street surrounded by social housing and safe-injection sites, it doesn’t really matter. Maybe it would be a big farmhouse table knocked together by my carpenter husband, he’d love to do it, I know. I’d gather metal lawn chairs and tree stumps, throw down picnic blankets and ratty old quilts.
I’d put stubs of candles into tin cans, string paper lanterns from the trees, trace a few prayer circles out of river stones, stuff wildflowers and dandelions into mason jars. Scatter buckets of sidewalk chalk for the kids. You can wear what you want, no robes required, bring your friends especially the rowdy ones Jesus would have LOVED to be caught dead with.
In fact, I’d stand in the field, in the streets, banging on pots and pans, maybe singing off-key, calling every one out. It would be nice if you brought enough to share, or were at least willing to share your small bit, but you don’t have to, if you can’t, well, that’s okay with us. It seems to me that we feast best when we each bring something to the table.
By now I’ve learned that God is enough and no one else is in charge of the guest list, so I’m not worried. Doubters, dreamers, skeptics, over-it and done-with-it, prophets and policy makers, failures and influencers, I’d like us all to sit down together, hands out to receive and also to give. Imagine if we were to pray, to talk, to sit in silence, to read Scripture, speak over again the centuries of blessings, go for a walk in the woods, maybe a swim, laugh until our sides ache. I’d like to pour wine or grape juice into that never-used wedding crystal goblet you’ve been saving for a special occasion, let’s blow the dust off of that stuff. If we’re lucky, someone will drop one.
We could feed each other, with real food. We’ll eat yeasty bread, tomatoes, strawberries, flat bread, curries, brisket, bulgogi, sweet and sour and salty, until we are full. Receive it, celebrate it, take it, receive it, turn around and feed each other. Whatever lands in your lap, have a bite and keep passing, keep passing it along, we’ve got people to feed.
And I would tell you that this, this feast, this food, this wine, the light in the trees, the wonder, these gorgeous flawed people, this gathering, this world, it’s the body broken for you, and the blood spilled out. We are all remembering that, the best we can, most days, and Jesus is with us always, even to the end of the age. If I could, I’d say your name and tell you, “This is the body of Christ broken for you, this is the blood of Christ poured out for you.” And somewhere, nearby, over the hill, into yesterday, someone would be singing.
Learn more about my books:
The NYT and International Bestseller A Rhythm of Prayer
In case you missed these Field Notes:
Links and Clicks Worth Reading - for subscribers
The Greatest Hits of Field Notes - for subscribers
A Grand Disruption (plus audio) - for subscribers
For the ones leaving Or, a reminder for the day when you cross the threshold into the wilderness - for everyone
Image Credit: Lightstock, TheRealFindo, used with permission.